"Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire." ~ Teilhard de Chardin
Maximilian Maria Kolbe, a Polish Catholic priest ordained to the priesthood in 1918, was strongly opposed to all leftist movements, including communism. As a young priest, he established a printing press in his monastery as a way to promote and evangelize the Catholic faith. When the Nazis occupied Poland in 1939, Kolbe was arrested but released after two months in prison. Due to the harsh war conditions, Kolbe, not one to be dismayed or frightened, turned his monastery into a refuge for displaced families, 2,000 Jews, and victims of political unrest. He continued publishing religious works which included anti-Nazi publications.
In February, 1941, the monastery was shut down by the German authorities and Kolbe was arrested by the Gestapo for the second time and imprisoned in Auschwitz. Continuing to act as a priest by giving spiritual help and secretly celebrating Mass, Kolbe was subjected to harassment, humiliation, beatings, and lashings. Yet, his love and hope continued to exist, even in the midst of this horrific genocide. Although suffering from tuberculosis from an early age, he was made to do hard labour in a work camp, which involved carrying heavy stone to build a crematorium. The crew was overseen by a sadistic guard who singled out Kolbe for brutal treatment. Witnesses say that Kolbe accepted these blows - even the time when he was left to die in the mud - with surprising calm in the midst of such horrendous atrocities. According to other prisoners, he remained selfless and always shared his meagre rations with others.
It was reported, one day, that a prisoner from Kolbe’s barracks had escaped. In order to set an example and to prevent further escapes, ten men were singled out to be sent to an underground starvation bunker. Although Kolbe was not one of the chosen, he volunteered in a heroic act of love to be the victim in place of another selected prisoner who cried out, “My poor wife; my poor children”. This prisoner miraculously survived five more years in Auschwitz before he was liberated.
In the starvation bunker, witnesses reported that Kolbe led the men in prayer, singing hymns, and preparing them for their impending death. Although the men went through terrible days, such as having to drink their own urine to quench their thirst, Kolbe was seen standing or kneeling as he looked cheerfully in the faces of the SS men who came for inspection. He never asked for anything, never complained, and continually encouraged the others. Kolbe’s two weeks in the starvation bunker was brought to an end by a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Shortly after the injection, the guards found him sitting against a wall, with his face radiant. At the age of 47, he was the last to die. In the face of extreme cruelty, Kolbe provided a rare glimpse of courage and pure joy. He sacrificed his life to save another prisoner.
How is it possible to maintain joyfulness when suffering such atrocities? Kolbe had a surprising resilience amidst his experiences of extreme anguish and sadness.
Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist and survivor of Auschwitz, believed that even in the midst of dehumanizing and atrocious conditions, life still had meaning and that suffering had a purpose. In his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Frankl theorized that during extreme physical circumstances, a person who had meaning in his life was more likely to survive even seemingly unbearable conditions. He believed the spiritual self could not be affected by external forces.
It’s unlikely that any of us will go through what Kolbe and Frankl endured. It’s even hard for us to wrap our heads around this kind of evil. But if Frankl is onto something when he talks about the importance of having meaning in our lives, where do we find meaning?
Some of us search for it in “stuff”, in the “if only I had a better job, a nicer house, a newer car, the perfect body, and lots of money” kinds of stuff. While these things sound wonderful, I mean, who wouldn’t want them, they are not only transitory but they don’t bring us happiness. Perhaps for a time, but studies have shown that within a few weeks, we’re back to the same level of happiness (or unhappiness) as we were before we acquired these things. So why don’t these things bring us lasting happiness? Because we’re working towards the wrong things. True happiness is deeply rooted inside us and isn’t based on circumstances. Inner happiness is not associated with “having” but with “being”. It’s what we call “joy”.
My close friend, Susu, exudes selflessness. She and her husband run a 15-room B&B, they adopted two children, one a special needs boy with cerebral palsy and cognitive disabilities, and she operates a non-profit equine therapy charity for special needs kids. I have never seen Susu without a smile, I’ve never heard her complain and I’ve never known her not to make time to help a friend. Susu has a deep faith, a love of God, and a joy that emanates from her being, regardless of what’s going on around her or within her. Where does that joy come from?
In the meaning of everyday life, it’s in the fragrance of a flower, a smile, a thank you, and even giving up your meagre ration of food to someone hungrier. It’s being able to appreciate life for these small moments even in the midst of chaos.
Life is monotonous, full of tedium and mediocrity, if it is meaningless or has no goal or purpose. It’s not monotonous if it has a purpose, and it’s impressive if it has a destiny. Each one of us is put on this earth for a purpose, and to fulfill our purpose is to bring meaning to our lives. My purpose might be totally different from yours but what we all have in common is the ability to show our love to those around us by offering something of ourselves for the good of the other. This sacrifice could be distributing food or clothing to the homeless, working as a volunteer in another country, teaching English to new immigrants, or even putting your life on the line to rescue another person.
It is, after all, the condition of the heart that matters. We may be buffered by trials, we may strain and struggle, feel angst and anxiety, yet, we can still rejoice, because in the suffering, there is where we’ll also find meaning. For the fruit of love is joy and joy arises from a meaningful life. As Mother Teresa said, “Spread love wherever you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.”Guest Author: Barbara Spencer, MSW. Before Barbara took early retirement in 2001, she lived and worked in a number of Canadian cities. Born and raised in Toronto, she married and moved to Calgary where she eventually entered university life and graduated from University of Calgary with a Bachelor and Master of Social Work. However, she always kept her eye on moving to the West Coast, and eventually she realized her dream by first working in Tofino, BC, and then moving to Vancouver, where she did social work in a hospital Emergency Department. Adventure kept calling her. She took early retirement, moved to Mexico and founded a non-profit charity helping impoverished children and families with food and education. After putting 14 years of her heart and soul into this awesome work, she ended her “second” career and began her “third” career teaching English online to students all over the world.